And yet this was hardly the most dispiriting aspect of the whole adventure. The line for helmets was very long, and yet few of the people I spoke to were actually residents of the Rutgers Houses or any of the neighboring public housing. I did, however, meet a svelte Argentine woman in running clothes who had come from the Upper East Side. There were also two young women who taught at Bard High School Early College and lived in brownstone Brooklyn, and a woman named Barbara Becker in the company of two sons who, she said when I inquired, attend Friends Seminary in Manhattan, where annual tuition is roughly 296 times the price of an expensive bike helmet (and 1,850 times the price of a helmet you can buy at Han’s Market, a convenience store next to the Clark Street kiosk that has quickly expanded its business from milk, soda and frozen foods to biking gear).
Raulo Jeffers did live in the Rutgers Houses, as he has for 38 years. He was waiting to get a helmet for a bike he already owned. The price of annual membership to Citi Bike is $95, but the city was giving a $35 discount to residents of public housing and other low-income New Yorkers. Even with the reduction, the price was too high, he believed. “People here don’t have a lot of money,” he said. Although more than 400,000 people live in the city’s public housing, only 200 people have signed up for the discounted membership, out of a total enrollment of more than 33,000, according to the Transportation Department. A spokesman for the department said that some public housing residents may have joined at the full price.
Another man in line, Alejandro Brown, a student from the South Bronx, said he was dismayed that the bike share program had not made it “above what I call the 96th Street border.”
It is still early in the program so these issues may still be ironed out. But, should we be too surprised when those who already have more social and economic capital are more in position to take advantage of a new program that also plays into middle- and upper-class sensibilities such as being green and getting exercise? For all of the talk of bike sharing in European cities, I haven’t seen much comment about how it interacts there with social inequalities. Perhaps this is a bigger issue all around…